"I walked over to him to shake hands and he had his arms folded in front of him. I held my hand out there for at least a half a minute. Finally he had to take my hand because there was other people around. He was forced into it, and that's what I hate to see. I shook hands with him and I invited him over to see the car, and he said, 'I can see it good enough from here.' Then I tried to strike a conversation, but I couldn't, so I walked. He came over to the car later."
Says Arthur: "Walter can see me alone and look right through me like I'm not there, but if there's someone around that he can make an impression on, he'll wave and say, 'Hi, Art!' Then he'll come over and pump my hand just like we're long-lost brothers and he hadn't seen me for years. At the airport that day he just wanted to make an ass out of me, and he succeeded in front of a lot of people. He walked up all smiles and pumped my arm. It didn't mean a thing."
The Wingfoot Express, with racks for 15 rockets capable of 28,800 hp, stood poised like a wingless airplane at the end of the 10-mile straightaway at Bonneville. Driver Bob Tatroe, a handsome 28-year-old father of five from Grand Rapids, waited for a signal from Designer-Builder Walter Arfons to send the car off on a major test run, with eight rockets firing on blast-off and two more set to fire just inside the measured mile. Arfons' arm dropped and Tatroe shoved the button instantly; the car jumped into flaming motion with a sound like a giant whipcrack, but veteran Bonneville observers were unimpressed by the speed. "What's your airspeed show, Bob?" Arfons asked at the end of the run.
The official speed through the measured mile was only 268 and, although the car was functioning on two-thirds of its available rocket power, the expectancy had been for a speed closer to 500. That night the brain trust assembled in Walter's motel room in nearby Wendover for the first of what proved to be several long sessions with slide rules and scratch pads. Four hours and two bottles of whiskey later, a spokesman said: "First of all it was a big surprise we only got 268 through the mile. It seemed like 450. Top was 290, a big disappointment. We'd already done the same speed with only seven rockets, and we did 120 with only two rockets. So obviously there's something wrong. We asked the mathematical experts to get together, the guys who figure out how many rockets we should use and how to stage them and where to begin the run and so forth. We went into the bathroom and got soap and had them draw on the mirror so they could explain what they were trying to do. We finally decided to take off the wheel pants. They're not needed below supersonic speeds, and this'll save 300 pounds. Obviously the car needs modifications. But remember, this is the world's first rocket car. We're writing our own history every time we run it."
On the next test run Tatroe fired all 15 rockets at the start and the Wingfoot Express accelerated quickly to a speed variously reckoned at between 485 and 520 mph. The disappointment hung like smog over the Goodyear camp. The mathematicians whipped out their slide rules and began checking their figures. A Goodyear spokesman announced to the press: "I was very pleased with today's run. Any time you get a car going 500 miles an hour as straight and as easy as that car does, you've really got something. The suspension is just beautiful, the steering is great, the brakes are absolutely unheard of, inconceivable, for a land-speed record car." He neglected to mention that the speed was too slow, and speed was the name of this particular game. Walter Arfons was more to the point. "It's pretty clear what's wrong," he said. "I built a heavy car. I built it too heavy. I built it safe. Every time I was putting in a brace or running a streamer through the body, I thought, 'Well, Mach 1, what's it gonna do to this car, everybody tells me it's gonna tear the car up, and I've got a man sitting up there that depends on me!' So I'd put another little brace in there, another little gusset, a little stronger here and there, and that's where I got my weight. But I've got a good safe-handling car."
Walter conferred with Chief Timer Joe Petrali of the U.S. Auto Club and asked if the club would approve the addition of 10 new rockets to the car, to be fired from vents drilled into the side of the body. "I don't see why that wouldn't be O.K.," said the ultracareful Petrali. The Wingfoot Express was taken back to the garage at Wendover; wrenches were hauled out, and the long job of rebuilding was begun. "Don't worry about the expense," a man from Goodyear told Walter, who had taken to his bed while his wife ministered to him. "It's his heart," said Gertrude Arfons. "It always comes on him after excitement. That's about the only reason I came out here. I felt that if something happened to the car, then something'd happen to Walter, and I didn't want him to be here alone."
Said Walter, heavily but calmly, "I'm gonna get the record broke."
While Walter remained registered in Room 159 of the Wend-Over Motel and oversaw the alterations to his rocket car, brother Arthur checked into Room 153, three doors away, for a week of his own on the salt. As usual, each acted as if the other were Red China. Passing in the courtyard of the motel or at the casino down the road or the Wendover Cafe, they looked over, above and beyond each other. "I'd like to say hello to him," said Walter, "but I'm afraid he'd embarrass me the way he usually does."